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School consolidation worries Harpswell parents

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School consolidation worries Harpswell parents

HARPSWELL — Parents are expressing concern over the possible closure of West Harpswell School and transfer of its students to the Harpswell Island School.

In light of declining enrollment and decreasing financial resources in School Administrative District 75, the district's Comprehensive Strategic Planning Committee and Board of Directors has approved a planning framework that suggests Harpswell elementary school consolidation as the first of three potential courses of action. The consolidation, if it happens, could occur in the upcoming school year.

Reorganization of Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham elementary schools into kindergarten through second grade and grade 3 to grade 5 facilities would come later, along with restructuring of schedules at Mt. Ararat middle and high schools.

Following public forums held last month, a strategic planning action team made up of school administrators and community members was formed to determine the value and feasibility of Harpswell school consolidation. That group met for the first time on Monday, drawing a crowd of more than 100 and, according to Assistant Superintendent Sally Loughlin, prompting the meeting to be moved from Harpswell Town Hall to the Harpswell Islands School gym.

"This is worth looking into," Loughlin said, "but now it's a time to gather the information and to really evaluate it."

Loughlin said the crowd offered input to the committee and was comprised primarily of people representing the West Harpswell School. Residents asked if alternatives to consolidation had been considered, Loughlin said, such as having Harpswell's sixth- and seventh-graders return from Mt. Ararat Middle School and once again attend school in their town, thereby addressing the dwindling enrollment issue in Harpswell.

Superintendent Mike Wilhelm said last week that the Harpswell Islands School is the largest of the two Harpswell schools, and that if the West Harpswell School is closed, it will revert back to the town. He pointed out that a large SAD 75 school such as the Woodside Elementary School in Topsham has resources that the West Harpswell School – one of the district's smallest, with 74 students – does not. A librarian and literacy support are among those resources that West Harpswell has on a limited basis, he said.

"West Harpswell School is not perfect," acknowledged Elizabeth Davis, whose child attends first grade there, "but it does an excellent job of educating its children. It is very high performing. It actually is the first-ranked school in Cumberland County by (Maine Educational Assessment) test scores."

Davis said a small school such as West Harpswell can be a double-edged sword, "but I don't think anybody in that building is really suffering from lack of services."

She said that this year and last "the school did a really outstanding job ... adapting to the needs of a student who has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair."

Her greatest concern as a community member, Davis explained, "is that South Harpswell, Harpswell Neck, has a very unique geography ... and there's a reason why there's a school on that corner, and why there's been a school there for a very, very long time. It's because we are a neck, and we reach out into the ocean, and I think in many ways our situation parallels the situation on some Maine islands that have fought so hard to keep their schools, even if they only have eight students, because they know that when the school dies, a piece of the community dies."

Davis said that if the school closes, one far-reaching effect could be that no family will want to move to that area of Harpswell, "because no family will want their child to have to take a 45-minute bus ride to school."

Scott Lemieux, who has a second-grader at West Harpswell, said that when Harpswell residents considered withdrawing from SAD 75 in recent years, he was opposed. But consolidation would force him to reconsider.

"My sentimental belief is that a district where you can combine resources and get economies of scale is a very beneficial thing for a small town," Lemieux said. "Unfortunately right now, because we're in the district, and they're looking at the numbers, they're contemplating closing the elementary school, which is going to essentially destroy the major heart center of the community."

Lemieux said a group of parents is discussing the option of petitioning the town of Harpswell to conduct a six-month study of school consolidation there.

"As a parent of a second grader," he said, "it's a concern to me that she's going from the school identity that she has today, and then very, very quickly, being expected to ... merge into another school which has a different culture. ... So at a minimum, if it were to happen and it were the proper choice, we'd be looking for a one-year buffer period in which we can introduce our children to the new school."

If the school does close, Lemieux said, "it's very likely that I will not enroll my students ... It's very likely that I will choose to home school my second-grader, and home school my other kids, and they will leave the system."

The strategic planning action team will meet again at the West Harpswell School at 6 p.m. Monday, April 6. The SAD 75 board will ultimately have to approve a reconfiguration strategy.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.